A high court decision in Saskatchewan this week covers the waterfront — it was gratifying, frustrating and infuriating.
The gratifying part was the sweet justice for six grain farmers who tried to haul wheat across the border into the United States, to protest the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly on Western-based grain exports. The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal tossed those cases out on Monday.
The wheat board argued that licensing under its authority is required before Prairie farmers can export wheat.
The high court examined the Customs Act and found no such licensing provisions are required. The six acquitted farmers had other documentation for their proposed wheat sales, offered it to Customs officials and it was refused.
The frustrating part is that 16 other Saskatchewan farmers in almost the same boat will have to stand trial again. They say they had similar documentation to the six whose cases were thrown out of court, but it is unclear whether they submitted those papers to Customs officials. In the court’s written decision, Justice William Vancise said there was sufficient conflict in the evidence and sufficient gaps in material findings of fact to order a new trial.
The infuriating part is that it has taken the better part of a decade to get to this point. The Saskatchewan farmers tried to haul their wheat across the line in 1996! Now, 16 of them will have to pony up again for expensive legal costs — and the core issue is still unresolved.
If there’s a silver lining in the new trials, it’s the hope that the court will finally and irrevocably recognize the fundamental unfairness in wheat board regulations.
Farmers from the Prairies are forbidden from selling their own wheat, raised on their own land, often for a higher price, when they want, into the United States without the sanction of the wheat board. Farmers from Ontario and Quebec are exempt from these regulations.
It should not matter that the volume of export wheat produced on the Prairies is vastly higher than what is grown in the East. The issue here is one of natural justice. Farmers fighting the wheat board say they don’t want to destroy the co-operative. If farmers want to pool their resources, have the wheat board act as their selling agent and share the risks and rewards, that’s fine with them.
They object strongly to the fact that the board is a monopoly exporter for select grains for select farmers. Canadian farmers today are much more educated, knowledgeable and sophisticated than those of any previous generation.
They have to be to survive in a marketplace where Europeans and Americans are flooding the world with heavily subsidized products grown far in excess of the consumption capacity of their domestic markets.
Many Western farmers object strenuously to the nanny-state mentality of the Canadian Wheat Board, which has been supported full bore by successive federal governments. What other Crown agency has its own cabinet minister?
Farmers living close to the American border should have a competitive advantage in selling their grain across the line. Under wheat board rules, that advantage is stripped away from them. Farmers who can produce crops of consistently high quality and could develop personal selling relationships with clients in other nations based on high quality and high service should be encouraged to do so. The Canadian Wheat Board forbids that. Unless, of course, you live in Ontario or Quebec, where the quality of wheat produced cannot consistently match what’s grown on the Prairies.
If the coming court cases for the remaining 16 Saskatchewan farmers can help ensure equal treatment for all Canadian grain farmers in their new trials, it will be a victory well worth waiting for.
Joe McLaughlin is managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.